All the Wrong Notes

by Shana Silver

My stepbrother shuts me out of his life. Again. As the door slams, I scrunch up my nose, hoping that squeezing my face will somehow lessen the impact. Pausing in the hallway outside his room, I savor the one moment of silence before it all begins. I imagine Cody unzipping the guitar case, polishing the wood with his sleeve to remove any dust that built up from yesterday's session, bending his head forward as he puts on the strap, messing up his spiky hair.

I hold my breath, sucking in my stomach and jutting out my chest even though he can't see the cleavage. This is the moment before clarity. I don't know what note he'll play. What it will feel like in my ears as I hear it. How I'll change after it's played, after the tune gets stuck on refrain in my head. I can't help but imagine this is what sex will be like. Silence and then sound.

He'll lay back and let me do all the work. Just like he lets me do all the English homework. The scene is so visual in my head: me on top of him, tousling his hair, unbuttoning his shirt…

Cody strums the guitar, and I can breathe again. I know nothing about music, but I recognize that song, the one he plays when he races up to his room and slams the door behind him, forgetting I ever existed. Every day I hope after that first strum, it'll be like the first day he moved into my house six months ago, when he invited me into his room to hear him play. I took it for granted that day. I laughed at him when he hit all the wrong notes. He never invited me to listen again.

I trudge back downstairs and sink into the couch. I'm in love with someone who loves an inanimate object. After six months of living in the same house, he already sees me as the annoying sister.

Cody changes chords, and I change my tune, diving into my homework.

On the couch, his book bag mocks me as if its presence next to me is somehow the personification of Cody. It smells like him, of cigarettes he's not supposed to smoke and the mint gum he chews to hide it.

I shift my weight on the couch, and his book bag falls to the floor with a thump, landing upside down. The contents spill out through the half-opened zipper. I start to shovel everything into the bag when his English notebook catches my eye, lying there like a diary without a lock. All during class I watch him scribble in that notebook, pretending to take notes. If he actually took the notes, he wouldn't need to copy my homework.

I set the book bag against the seat cushion and let the notebook rest on my lap. The cover frays at the edges. I flip to the back where he's written song quotes from his favorite bands, tracing my finger over his writing, memorizing his signature, ready to forge it on my own notebook. An autograph for his only fan.

Before I open the book and invade his privacy, I savor the feeling of before, of the unknown. Closing my eyes, I try to imagine what I think will be on the pages. Guitar tabs maybe. Or possibly he does homework for another class, a class he doesn't share with me. Or he's expanding the quotes on the back to full passages. I flip open to a random page and see a thin column of writing that hugs the margin line. The next pages all contain the same thin column, only with different words and different ragged edges. Fanning the book, I flip through and animate the pages, the negative spaces between the words dancing before my eyes as they jump from position to position.

He's writing songs. The lyrics have a musical quality to them, and I know immediately which guitar song this one refers to. I can hear the chords in my head, the changes in pitch.

This one's called HER. With her chocolate hair and her waxen smile, she haunts me. I look down at my own muddy hair, stringy from the humidity outside. I think of dinner and how my smile is always plastered on my face when I'm around Cody. I wonder if it's waxen.

She talks as if she knows it all, and taunts me. Maybe he's writing about me. About the way I always let him copy my homework, but give him grief about it. I think of him in English class, sitting next to me, his hand covering his paper as if he doesn't want me to copy his notes. He runs home from school, and shuts me out of his life. I can't help but hope that he wants to sing his songs about me. That's why he can't sing to me.

The music stops, and a door opens. Without thinking, I rip the song out of his notebook and crumple it into my pocket. I throw his notebook back into his bag and zip it halfway shut. My heart pounds, and my lips feel parched. I moisten them with chapstick and pucker as if I'm practicing for a kiss.

He stomps down the stairs, and I stare at a page in my English textbook. I will myself to read the words. Instead, I only see the spaces between the letters.

"Hey, Megan." Cody plops down on the couch, reaches for the remote, and then lays his arm on the book bag resting between us. He cracks his knuckles, and I flip my hair, trying to catch the glare from the lamp, hoping it glistens like melted chocolate.

"My mom home yet?" He settles on a music station, barely even looking at me.

I shake my head.

"Crap. The music store closes at six, and I broke my last guitar string."

"Sorry," I say for lack of a better response.

He rests his head into the back of the couch and shuts his eyes, the lashes fluttering a few times in succession.

I continue to read, but don't get very far.

His head jerks up. He unzips his book bag and pulls out his English notebook. In a moment he'll need to give me CPR because I've stopped breathing. Why did I rip that poem out?

I watch out of the corner of my eye as he flips to a blank page. I sigh, and he glances at me. I give him a half-smile to cover it up. "I haven't done it yet." I'm referring to the homework, but I can't help think how inexperienced my statement makes me sound, like I'm begging him to sleep with me for the first time. Maybe I am.

He nods. "I owe you anyway. I'll do it today. Except…" He opens his eyes wide, pleading with me. "I forgot my text book." He pushes his mouth to one side in an 'aw shucks' manner.

I thrust the book into his lap, and it falls shut.

"You could have finished your reading first." He laughs, and I feel stupid. "I have other stuff I can work on."

I wonder if he's referring to his song lyrics.

He pushes the book between us and opens to the page I left off. "Here, we'll share."

Our shoulders touch as we both hunch over, reading. Except I can't concentrate any more than I could when he first came down the stairs. Every time he looks over at me and asks if I'm done, I just nod and let him continue on to the next page. This is a moment of silence I've been waiting for, when the two of us spend time together instead of apart, when the music we're creating is our own staccato breaths harmonizing together. He smells of hair gel and cologne. I wonder if he's replenished both.

* * *

In third period English, I take my seat as usual and wait for Cody to saunter in nearly on the bell. He pulls out his notebook, barely even looking at me even though I'm sitting next to him.

He starts scribbling, constantly glancing at the front of the room, probably checking to see if the teacher is watching him. He really does look like he's taking notes. At one point our teacher, Ms. Sampson, peeks at him and smiles at his proficiency. She paces in the front of the room, her calves still young enough to lecture in heels.

Ms. Sampson talks about prose, putting examples on the board of the poetic nature of the sentence structure. She stares at Cody who doesn't even look up from his notebook. "Cody!" His head snaps up. He looks like he's about to cry. "You've been taking extensive notes all class period. I'd love to hear your interpretation on the prose."

I suck in my breath and listen to the tick of the clock. Someone in the front of the room shuffles in his seat. Ms. Sampson drops her chalk. Cody looks at me, his mouth open. I try to will the correct answer into his brain through telepathy.

"It has a musical quality," he says. "Like the words were specifically chosen to fit into a rhythm."

Ms. Sampson smiles. "Very astute, Cody." She spins around and writes more examples on the board.

I turn my attention back to Cody, ready to be on the receiving end of his conspiratorial smile. But I trace his eyes to the front of the room and watch them settle on a girl. She turns around and gives him an exceptionally large smile, all teeth and gums. The light hits her lips in such a way that they look matte instead of shiny. They look waxen. She whirls her head back to the front of the room, and her cocoa colored hair follows like a flowy skirt still spinning even after the dancer has stopped. Her. Katie Mahoney.

Not me.

I watch her for the rest of class, my eyes narrowing. Silence overwhelms me as the sound of the class disappears, and all I hear is her bubbly voice answering the questions, showing off her prowess at academics. Cody scribbles and looks up at her several times as if he's drawing a still life and needs to remember the details as he transcribes them onto paper.

All my fantasies evaporate, a void like a blank notebook page before it has been covered in song lyrics.

Katie stretches her arms, pulling the delicate satin of her skin taut. Her triceps are defined, and I wonder if she's naturally skinny or if she works at it, sculpting her body like an artist molds a block of clay, like Cody writes a song. A tear glistens in her eye as she yawns. It slithers down her cheek, then disappears into the background of the room, lost, forgotten. She wipes her eye and smiles at her neighbor, shrugging her shoulders and scrunching her nose to show she's embarrassed at the action. I hate her for looking so cute.

* * *

When I get home from school, Cody retreats to the couch, his guitar string still broken. I walk right past him to my room. He won't be bracing for the moment when I shut him out of my life. I slam the door harder than he usually does and flop onto my bed. My lavender comforter rises around me like mountain peaks.

I pull out his song and sing it to myself softly, imagining how all the lines refer to Katie and not me. I can't stop thinking about her. And it makes me wonder why I never really noticed her before. She's been in my classes for years, always sitting at the front, her back straight, her arm raised. I slouch in the back, doing my homework only because I'm expected to. Not because I enjoy it. Someone loves her enough to write a notebook full of songs about her, to practice every day from the moment he gets home until the moment dinner is ready. He neglects his own work just to focus on his silent declarations.

Her hair really is shiny and coaxes spectators to run their fingers through it. It would feel soft in my hand. Softer than my own stringy locks.

I imagine what her lips would feel like to touch, if they really are that soft, or if they're chapped underneath the superficial coating she applies. I picture myself running my hand over her lips, touching their craters and peaks and valleys, feeling the place where they coalesce into her cheek. I wonder if she tastes like cigarettes and mint like I imagine Cody does, and in one brief moment, I picture myself leaning in and kissing

Not him.

But my eyes jerk open and the thought bubble pops. My heart races, and my stomach churns. I feel like I've been on a roller coaster. I don't know what's happening to me. I've never had romantic feelings for another girl before.

I lie with my eyes open, trying to concentrate on my breath. Maybe I've been suppressing these feelings all along, lying to myself and obsessing about a guy I'll never get because he thinks he's my brother.

Like flash cards, I flip through the entire junior class and try to see if I'm attracted to any other girls. But it's just Katie who seems magnetic in my mind. I let the lyrics of Cody's song play as background music to my mind's Katie slide slow. I wonder if she'll care that I'm not as skinny as her or as attractive.

I take a deep breath. Flipping onto my side, I spot the silver prom dress Cody's mom bought me.

The prom. I always imagined going with Cody, the two of us slow dancing under the disco lights, my head resting on his shoulder. He will smell like hair gel, and we'll kiss on the floor and realize that over the last six months, we've fallen in love. I smile at the thought and let myself slip into the fantasy I've coveted, where he parts his lips. My own lips connect with his. He'll taste like the booze I know he's going to sneak into the dance. His hands will slip down my waist and linger on my butt. Katie will stare and place her thin arms on her hips. That tear from her yawn will fall once again, though this time at the realization that she's lost him.

And now I'm more confused than ever because I still have romantic feelings for Cody. I didn't get chills when I fantasized about kissing Katie. I try once again, willing myself to see if I'm attracted to girls, but the memory always fades before our lips make contact. And it hits me: I'm not in love with her. I just love the fact that Cody loves her. I love the words he described her with and the way he looks at her. I love what she is to him. Not what she is to me.

The silence fills the room, and now I know how Cody must have felt yesterday when his guitar string snapped, because my hope of being with him snaps, too, as I finally understand Cody's feelings for her. Not me.

I get off the bed and trudge downstairs. Cody sits on the couch with his notebook in his lap. The one about her. It stings me for a moment, but I brush away the hurt and plop down next to him. The impact from my fall sends his notebook jumping in his lap. Katie would relax more gracefully.

"Where'd you run off to?" he asks, his eyes not wavering from the television.

"Someone had to lock herself in her room right after school." I give him a half-smile and wait for him to laugh. He never does.

"Hey, I'm sorry. I only shut the door because I want to be quiet so you could do your homework. I didn't want to mess you up."


Cody stares at the TV. I readjust my seating position. The silence is killing me. I have to say something. "I'd like to hear you play sometime. Be your audience or whatever. I don't like when you shut me out of your life." I pause and wait for him to say something. The room swells with the bass from the music video blasting on TV. "I mean, I know we've only been…siblings for a few months, but, well, we don't need to be strangers."

He shifts his leg so it rests underneath him and faces me. "I don't know what to say."

I nod, knowing I said too much. I get up from the couch, ready to go back to my room. I never expected him not to even want to be my friend, my brother. I'm just a girl he likes to copy homework from so he can impress Katie. All I am to him is a piece of paper with words on it.

He grabs my arm and tugs on it, trying to push me back onto the couch. I let my arm hang limply between us. I think of the way the skin doesn't rise over sculpted triceps.

"Megan, don't go. I'm just not…very good at this stuff." He wins, and I fall back into the couch, staring at the pictures moving across the TV.

Ah… this stuff…the friend stuff, the stuff that isn't about love. Because I know he's quite articulate about love. On paper he is. I pull out the crumpled Katie poem from my pocket and hand it to him. He stares at it, his mouth hanging open.

"I'm sorry I read your notebook. I have no excuse. I just...I don't know…wanted to know what you were thinking."

His eyes fill with water, and for a moment I think he's going to cry as his lips pull into a thin line.

His silence is too much to bear, so I just keep talking to fill the void. "So anyway, I get it, Cody. It's cool. You just don't want to talk about things with me."

Hanging his head low, he smoothes out the paper and tucks it back into his notebook. He doesn't look at me. He opens his mouth to speak, and I scrunch my face up to lessen the impact of his harsh words. "Well, if my Mom would get home before the stupid store closes, I could play it for you."

"You don't have to. I didn't say all this to force you to pay attention to me." I cradle my arms around my knees. Part of me wants to run back upstairs and slam the door, but I'm too weak, too ashamed of my earlier thoughts and the way I let his notebook manipulate me into fantasies.

"I want to." He places his hand on my knee, and his thumb lingers dangerously close to grazing my knuckle. "I was afraid you wouldn't like the songs unless they were perfect. That's why I was so obsessed with practicing." He pats my knee and removes his hand. The spot feels cold without his warmth. Katie evaporates from my mind, leaving me just as empty as my knee feels. "I didn't want you to laugh at me again. I wanted to impress you this time." He stares at me with undulating eyes. His mouth creeps into a smile.

This is the before. Soon it'll all begin. And then I'll know. And there won't be silence to hide behind anymore. This isn't a fantasy or wishful thinking. This is real.

I slowly lift my eyes to meet his. His pupils swim with anticipation. Sucking in my breath, I savor the silence before I acknowledge what he just said. Before I even allow myself to comprehend it. Before my fantasies of Cody loving Katie morph into the reality of Cody loving me. Before Katie becomes a practice song, and I laugh because I realize I hit all the wrong notes.

© 2007 by Shana Silver



About the Author

Shana Silver's short fiction has appeared in The Hiss Quarterly, The Deepening, and Shine. Her young adult novel THE ART OF SELLING MY SISTER is a finalist in the RWA Chick Lit chapter's 2007 Get Your Stiletto in the Door contest. When not writing, she's a freelance computer animator with credits ranging from a CG Barbie movie to the 2007 Superbowl graphics. Please visit her on the web at:



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